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No longer a captive: Debra Jo Immergut’s long-awaited novel makes its debut

  • Books by Immergut including her debut novel, “The Captives,” which has been named one of Glamour’s best books of summer and a “must-read” by Entertainment Weekly. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS PHOTOS

  • Debra Jo Immergut’s debut novel, “The Captives,” is a psychological thriller set primarily in a prison. She’s seen here in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/ JERREY ROBERTS

  • Debra Jo Immergut’s debut novel, "The Captives" is a psychological thriller set primarily in a prison. She’s seen here in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Debra Jo Immergut’s debut novel, “The Captives,” is a psychological thriller set primarily in a prison. She’s seen here in her Northampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Debra Jo Immergut says she’s thrilled her debut novel, “The Captives,” is finally being published, given she began it in the 1990s. “The gestation period was plenty long,” she says. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2018

Back in the early 1990s, just a few years after she graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Debra Jo Immergut published a collection of short stories and then, like many a fiction writer, started working on a novel.

That novel didn’t make the same headway and Immergut, then a young mother living in New York City, turned to magazine writing and editing for much of the next two decades.

But Immergut, 54, now living in Northampton, never quite gave up on her novel — and after revisiting it three years ago and reworking it, she’s about to see “The Captives” published not just in the United States but in 11 other countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Brazil and China.

And as she tries not to worry about what reviewers might say — the initial word has been good — Immergut says just seeing her book make it to print is satisfaction enough.

“Equanimity is my mantra right now,” she said with a laugh during a recent interview in her home. “In a way, the happy ending has already happened by getting it published because I’ve been working on it for so long.”

“The Captives,” by Ecco Press of New York, an imprint of HarperCollins, is a psychological thriller about a thirtysomething woman, Miranda Greene, who’s in prison in Westchester County, New York on a murder charge, and the prison psychologist, Frank Lundquist, assigned to work with her.

At their first meeting, Frank instantly recognizes Miranda as the fellow high school student he once had a huge crush on — but rather than reassign the case, which he’s ethically required to do, Frank uses the opportunity to find out more about Miranda, who doesn’t recognize him, never having given him a second glance in high school. 

What follows is a study, in the alternating voices of Miranda (told in the third person) and Frank (first person), of two damaged characters who are both trying to make their way over uncertain ground. There’s also a steady uptick in the book’s page-turning factor, as the second half of the story ratchets up the tension and moves to a surprising conclusion, driven in part by Frank’s growing obsession to connect with his old crush. 

Miranda, the product of a conventional “good home,” despairs about the mess she’s made of her life, even as she tries to build on the friendships she’s forged with some of the other female prisoners; those friendships seem especially important to her now, given that her past relationships with men have ended in failure and a 50-year jail sentence.

Frank, meanwhile, is trying to recover from a series of professional and personal failures, including a divorce, and his sense that he’s never escaped the shadow of his father, the developer of a famous children’s psychological and aptitude test. He seizes on his role as Miranda’s counselor both to relive the feelings he once had for her and as a chance to redeem his life by helping her — in ways that may put both of them at risk.

“I think the idea of the high school crush is just so relatable,” said Immergut. “In some ways, we all carry the person we were in high school, and that first love especially can shape you inside … [The story] is also about a male and female gender power struggle, within the confines of a women’s prison.”

With a nod to the #MeToo movement, Immergut added, “That’s something we’re grappling with right now, so in a way the book feels much more relevant today than it did when I began it.”

‘That’s how old it was’

Immergut has written for a number of publications over the years — The Boston Globe, New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal — on issues such as design, criminal justice and parenting. With her husband, novelist and journalist/TV producer John Marks, and their son, Joe Marks (now 19), she moved to Northampton in 2005 to work at the former Family Fun magazine.

When that magazine folded in 2015, Immergut used her severance package and a residency at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to “go back and see if there was anything alive” in her earlier version of her novel. That was only after she had a friend with some technical expertise extract her manuscript from a floppy disk.

“That’s how old it was,” she said with a laugh.

To her delight, she found that the characters of Miranda and Frank still seemed quite viable but that the book “needed a better framework and an improved pace, a way to give it more energy.”

She has provided that in part by relying on her experience writing about and working in the criminal justice system. At one point, she worked as a writing coach with a woman in a federal corrections center in Danbury, Connecticut, who was pursing an MFA in writing; that woman served as something of a template for the character of Miranda, Immergut notes.

She also currently teaches writing once a week with male inmates at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction who are working toward their high school equivalencies.

The scenes in the prisons and the characters there (which are composite portraits, Immergut says) feel particularly well drawn. Publishers Weekly, in a review of “The Captives,” says Immergut “expertly crafts the other characters in the story, including Frank’s younger junkie brother, Clyde, and several of Miranda’s fellow inmates, who all play an important part in the story’s surprising denouement.”

Part of her interest in writing about these characters is her belief that incarcerated people need to be viewed not just as a monolithic bunch of bad apples, but as women and men who may have made bad choices or been caught up in difficult lives that have limited their options.

“I’m a big believer in redemption,” Immergut said. “What I’ve found in working in corrections is that [inmates] are people like you and me. We all make mistakes, we all have flaws.”

She’s also a big believer in the role fate can play in one’s life, which is why among a number of writers who have influenced her — Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, John le Carré — she singles out English novelist Ian McEwan (“Atonement,” Saturday,” “Enduring Love”), whose books are notable for plots in which a seemingly minor event becomes a catalyst for much more dramatic developments in people’s lives.

“I’m very impressed by his work,” said Immergut. “He’s also a big believer in fate … He comes up with a sort of energy-packed premise and then lets that energy go, and it takes you on a very fast ride.”

In building Miranda’s background story, Immergut has also tapped into some of her experience growing up. Miranda’s father is a former one-term congressman who becomes a lobbyist all too willing to make moral compromises. Immergut says she grew up primarily in the Washington, D.C. area, and though neither of her parents were involved in government or politics, many of their friends were; learning how backdoor deals got made, and how self-interest seemed to motivate many people, gave her a certain skepticism about government and people’s motivations, she says.

“For the character of Miranda’s father, we knew someone who had a similar trajectory and went to prison for corruption,” she said. “That became a reference point for her. How would that close-up view of poor choices and dodgy morals kind of flow down into you and your being?”

As she readies for a number of book readings this month, including in the Valley, Immergut also says she’s grateful for the ties she forged at Family Fun and in Northampton, saying being part of a group of writers and artists here “has really helped me bubble along as a writer and kept that creative spirit alive. I think that’s partly why my book is finally seeing the light of day.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Debra Jo Immergut will read from “The Captives” on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Broadside Books in Northampton along with Valley novelist Edie Meidav. Immergut also appears at the Montague Book Mill August 2 with writer Kate Christensen and musician Johnny Irion. Her website is debrajoimmergut.com.